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- Currently the scandals go viral and, like a snowball, increase in size at an unusual speed.
- If you are guilty and people believe you are innocent, you will continue to be considered innocent: the people preferred Barabbas to Jesus of Nazareth.
- Professor Benoit identified five strategies: denial, avoidance of responsibility, reduction of the offense, corrective action, and mortification.
Rare is the day when a scandal doesn’t appear on the news and we think the world is going to get worse. With or without reason, the reputations of organizations and public figures are in doubt and harshly judged. Fortunately, there is no shortage of communication experts to help with image crises. And, although technology has changed, the basis of his advice has been maintained for years.
Halfway between rhetoric and persuasive narrative, today I present a classification developed by Professor William M. Benoit in 1997. His article ” Image Repair Discourse and Crisis Communication ” is still valid. In fact, the SCOPUS database says 550 subsequent scholarly articles took it as a reference. Plus, just watch the news to find out that those arguments still work.
Do you want to help a politician accused of corruption?
I’m going to be mean and ironic. I’m going to make up a hypothetical case to illustrate my point. Imagine a public figure who is accused of having benefited from something that did not belong to him. For example: committing a traffic offense, getting vaccinated against COVID before its time, evading taxes or handwriting a contract to a family member.
It does not matter if the fact of which he is accused is true or not. The important thing is that a newspaper discovers and publishes the news. A few later, the story jumps to television and internet portals. And soon, networks like Twitter or Reddit are already viralizing the scandal.
Something that you must take into account in this case is that social perception is as or more important than reality itself . That means that, unfortunately, if you are guilty and people believe you are innocent, you will still be considered innocent. The reverse: if you are innocent, but people believe you guilty, you will be seen as such. That’s how it was all his life: the people preferred Barabbas over Jesus (Gospel of Saint John, 18:40).
So our defendant – legitimately or not – summons the press to give explanations. How can we help you clean up your image?
The five arguments
Professor Benoit studied those who obtained the best communication results after an image crisis and published a list of five discursive strategies: denial, avoidance of responsibility, reduction of the offense, corrective action and mortification.
It does not matter if you are a soccer player, director of a multinational, mayor or public personality: if you have to justify yourself in the face of a scandal, these strategies can help you:
1. Denial . It is the most elementary form. But, to add depth to the analysis, we will say that it has two versions:
- Simple denial: the person denies the fact completely. For example: ” the accusation is false, because I never exceeded the speed with my car” .
- Transfer of blame: where responsibility is transferred to another. To summarize: ” if what they say is true, I did not go: my cousin was driving .”
2. The evasion of responsibility . It’s a slightly more sophisticated argument. Here the fact is not denied, but the responsibility of the person is. Benoit defined four modalities:
- Provocation: the accused admits his relationship with the offensive act, but not by his own will, but by an external factor that “caused” that relationship. For example: “ Yes, I was vaccinated against COVID (ahead of time), but I was visiting a hospital and the doctors told me that they had extra vaccines that were going to spoil. And, of course, I listened to the doctors ”.
- Lack of information: the person acknowledges having participated in the offense, but hides behind the lack of prior knowledge. For example: ” Yes, it is true that there was a secret bank account in a foreign country, but I inherited it from my grandmother and did not know of its existence until she died.”
- Accident: The person admits to having made the mistake, but hides himself in a setback beyond his control. For example: “It is true that aid was granted to my cousin’s company, but it was due to an accident when I clicked a button on the computer …”.
- Good intention: the person admits participation in the onerous act but appeals to good faith. For example: “ I admit that I was wrong. I believed that COVID was a bad passenger and did not take steps to force people to wear masks. I am sorry for the thousands of deaths, but do not look for bad intention in my decision ”.
3. The reduction of the offense . This strategy aims to downplay the consequences of a negative act. The person does not deny the fact or his participation in it, but wants to dissolve the perception of negativity. It is equivalent to “ there is no such thing as” and it has six variants:
- Reaffirmation of positive attributes: the person reinforces the positive feelings that the public may have about him, and thus makes the bad feelings more acceptable. For example: “ I know that I have disappointed you today, but you know that up to now I have had more successes than mistakes. Give me a new chance and I will not let you down ” .
- Minimization: similar to the previous one, here we try to reduce the impact of negative feelings. For example: “it is true that in my government there has been corruption, but thanks to the fact that we have discovered it in time we will prevent the problem from growing. You can be calm ”.
- Differentiation: the person places the act of which he is accused in the context of other acts that could be worse. For example: “I admit that I did wrong, but think that the ruler before me did even worse things.”
- Significance: the accused person tries to create a frame (or frame ) that places the offensive act in a broader and more favorable context. For example: “the concession of public works to the company of my first cousin was intended to create employment and wealth for the benefit of the whole country.”
- Attack on the accuser: already going on the offensive, the person tries to discredit his accuser, showing arguments that suggest the illegitimacy of the complaint. For example: ” this journalist, and his newspaper, have always criticized us because they are at the service of my political enemies … What else can they say about me, if it is not evil?”
- Compensation: the defendant focuses his speech on presenting compensation for the act committed, but does not give greater importance to the act itself. For example: ” from tomorrow we will give free masks to everyone” , or “we will give to poor people all the money from the bank account that my grandmother left me in that country .”
4. Corrective actions . Linked to the previous strategy, here the accused agrees to correct the problem by restoring the status quo prior to the offense. It usually does this by establishing a corrective action plan, which you want to be evaluated afterwards. For example: “today we are going to create a clear law and a protocol so that, from now on, such a situation can never occur again .”
5. Mortification . It is the ultimate image strategy. The accused, whether or not he is at fault, takes responsibility for the offensive act and apologizes for it. In Japan and Germany, political officials involved in scandals are often held responsible for the events, whether they committed them or not. They resign. And then when there is a trial, they are proven innocent or guilty. In other countries, however, resignation is a very rare phenomenon.
They say that a falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest. I believe it. The fact that so many cases of corruption are known should not lead us to think of public life as a series of scandals. Fortunately, for every criminal, there are a hundred thousand decent people. Even in politics.
In addition, unlike other times, today we all have a profile on social networks and what we say, even without thinking, has its impact. So today the scandals go viral and, like a snowball, grow in size at an unusual speed. This is why William Benoit’s studies are so useful. Whether it is the cheater or the one who is not guilty of anything, everyone has the right to the presumption of innocence.
Finally, be clear that Benoit did not invent those strategies, nor did he propose them to justify corruption. He only took note of what the best did. And trust me, his work helps more to unmask than to hide hoaxes.